Gansbaai: capital of the great white shark
If Hermanus is the capital of whales, Gansbaai is the mecca of the great white sharks, the undisputed stars of the South African coast. These animals are part of the « marine big five », the « five emblematic animals of the seas » with whales, dolphins, sea lions and African penguins. Tourists come especially from Cape Town, 2 and a half drive from here, hoping to see them up close in their element but being safe in a cage – the cage is for humans this time and not for the sharks who are free to come and go as they wish.
It is worth remembering that in 2015, there were only 6 deadly shark attacks in the world (the majority in La Reunion Island by Zambezi sharks mainly) and that since 2013, only one of the three deadly attacks of sharks in South Africa was due to a great white. You have more bad luck to die electrocuted by your toaster while getting your toasts ready in the morning than being devoured by a great white shark. In contrast, men killed last year more than 200 million sharks, especially for shark fin soup. This shark hunt is likely to cause major environmental disturbances because sharks are apex predators in the oceans, at the top of the marine food chain that they help to regulate. The great white sharks also disappear at a frightening speed ! Within a month, four white sharks were found stranded on Gansbaai beaches, their liver surgically removed by two orca whales known as the « two brothers » who were patrolling off Gansbaai. Today, the many shark cage diving companies are struggling to keep up because the number of sharks in the bay has declined considerably. No doubt that the sharks fear a new attack from the orcas ! They have not hesitated to get away from the South African coast despite the fact that their main food source, Cape fur seals, are in abundance there.
For our sea trip to meet the great white sharks, we chose a company I knew well: Marine Dynamics. It was the first to fund a true research on great white sharks (Alison Towner, the lead biologist, is now working on her Ph.D on this subject). The boat was built for cage diving with sharks, the crew is extremely experienced and the whole company is focused on the protection and conservation of great white sharks.
There is a presentation by marine biologists before your departure with many photos and videos and they are also on board the boat Slash Fin to answer your questions. In addition, the company employs many people from the township, helping whole families to properly live. For more than 10 years that I have know them, I could appreciate the innovations that they brought to this type of eco-tourism and their numerous rewards in this field prove it.
When we went out to sea with them to see the sharks, we were very lucky because we could observe three great white sharks but also a lot of copper sharks and stingrays. We were able to go in the cage but the visibility was not optimal to take photos. The experience is no less interesting and to be close to one of the greatest predators on the oceans in their own element is truly fascinating.
It is important to say that the sharks are not fed at any moment. They are attracted to the boat by some fish heads hooked as a bait, by the decoy, a piece of wood shaped as the silhouette of a seal and by the chum, a mixture of fish liver and fish blood spread in the water that creates a chum slick. The sharks are very sensitive and can smell that fishy sent from far away and follow it like a path.
After returning from the sea, you can eat at the excellent restaurant The Great White House which serves all meals of the day. The dishes are plentiful, of high quality and there is a lot of South African specialties including the famous Bobootie, a typical sweet and sour meat dish. The fish is bought directly from the fishermen and you can taste the abalones of the neighboring farm. They have also fresh oysters in season. The open fire is more than welcome after a day spent at sea and the drinks prepared at the bar are varied and available at any time of the day. You’ll eat under « Suzi » the massive skeleton of a Right Whale that beached a few years ago and whose bones have been carefully assembled. A few months before our visit, Wilfred Chivell, owner of the restaurant and curator of the place, had just put a heart to the skeleton to show how big it is. There are also a few skeletons from dolphins, animals who beached themselves on the shores of Gansbaai. The restaurant also offers small traditional houses to rent for those seeking comfortable accommodation nearby the departures for the great white sharks or whales tours.
African penguin and seabird sanctuary: acting to protect seabirds
Wilfred Chivell, the founder of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust and owner of both Marine Dynamics and Dyer Island Cruises, has always been a philanthropist and protector of the environment. He has dedicated his life to nature : saving stranded or injured animals to rehabilitate them in the wild. Its companies are fully focused on education and environmental protection and its conservation fund is one of the most active on the South African coast. A few years ago, he opened a center for sick or wounded penguins to heal and release them. Some unfortunately will not have this chance because they are unable to return to nature due to blindness or a broken wing. These birds are therefore visible to the public who can thus become aware of the dangers they face. The center receives local schools through a pedagogical and fun program and the public can visit the premises and watch the penguins while they are fed. You can help the center by « adopting » a penguin to allow it to return to the ocean one day.
A coffee place welcomes you and there is also a shop whose sales profits are donated to the Trust. Injured animals are welcomed in the health zone and treated. The center also builds nests for penguins and transport them to Dyer Island where the penguins nest.
Gansbaai and De Kelders: The Whale Route
Gansbaai and the coastal town of De Kelders are one of the best places in the world to see right whales from the shore. These whales come every year from Antarctica to give birth or breed. They can be seen in South African waters from mid-July to mid-December and babies are born in August. During this long journey in the warmer waters of South Africa (everything is relative because the sea is around 15 ° C), the whales do not feed and live on their fat reserves. If you are lucky, you’ll be able to see right whales of course, but also other species of whales such as humpback or Bryde whales. Three species of dolphins are also here in those waters : the shy humpback dolphin, the playful bottlenose dolphin and the spectacular common dolphin who travels in huge pods. You are sure to see Cape fur seals and usually African penguins are also always present.
Dyer Island Cruises allows you to approach those sea giants and discover their life. Biologists are on board to answer all your questions. The top deck of Dream Catcher, the boat built a year ago for the sole purpose of observing marine mammals, is a great place to take pictures. It is one of the few boats of its kind in the world.
You can also watch whales from land in the village of De Kelders. The beautiful carved rocks are a dream observation post just as is the great Coffee on The Rocks, an institution here in De Kelders. Its large terrace offers unmatched views of the bay and its inhabitants : the mighty whales. In addition, the food is excellent!
To accommodate you, I can not recommend too much a beautiful studio to rent : Cliff Appartment with direct sea view from your bed! There is free parking, wifi, and exceptional views on the whales at breakfast. The kitchen is very convenient too. All for a very attractive price.
The Fat Bike in the dunes: an activity not to be missed!
Mountain biking in the dunes of De Kelders is the most exhilarating and exciting activity you can do in the area. Great smiles and bursts of laughter are guaranteed throughout the ride. I am far from being a fan of cycling and even less mountain biking but I absolutely loved it ! The Fat Bike is a huge mountain bike with big tires slightly deflated to ride on sand. The dunes seem huge to climb and too high to go down but everything is simple with the Fat Bike and Dave Caravias, the owner of Fat Bike Tours SA and guide helps you to feel comfortable with this new bike and to gain confidence in yourself. What a satisfaction to have descended the biggest of the dunes without falling once, to make small jumps or to pedal to the top of a huge dune! The place is magical, it feels like a fairy world. The arrival at the seaside is just as amazing and you have only one desire : start again ! I wholeheartedly recommend it to you !